May the city install bike share terminals in front of your building? That was the issue discussed in Cambridge Owners Corp. v. New York City Department of Transportation.
The Facts of the Case
The Department of Transportation (DOT) decided to install a bike share station in front of 175 West 13th Street in Manhattan. This residential property is owned by Cambridge Owners Corp., a cooperative housing corporation, which brought a proceeding to challenge the decision; DOT then made a motion to dismiss the petition.
Cambridge is a 20-story building with 137 apartments. The “Citi Bike” program consists of 6,000 bicycles docked in more than 300 self-service share stations around the city. Members of the public can rent the bikes from, and return them to, any station in the system, which is open around the clock, throughout the year. The city was legally required to provide a condensed network of bike share stations, so that users could easily obtain or return a bike.
The Back Story
The New York City Department of City Planning performed a study before the launch of the bike share program. DOT also affirmed that it undertook a multi-year public planning process to determine the location of the stations. It issued a publication – NYC Bike Share, Designed by New Yorkers – explaining the process included more than 150 public meetings, presentations, and demonstrations, as well as more than 200 meetings with elected officials, property owners, and other stakeholders.
DOT asserted that in determining individual station sizes, its planners used a computer model to analyze surrounding land use, population, tourism rates, subway turnstile counts, and other data on transit use. The agency also claimed that it used newly available taxi GPS data on trip origins and destinations. It said many factors were used to make final decisions about where to place the docking stations, including requests and comments from the public, proximity to transit and other destinations, distance from other bike share stations, and access and proximity to bike lanes. It also considered whether the area was well lit, its proximity to the corner, the amount of curb lane, and inclusion of restricted parking lanes. It specifically declined to install bike share stations in areas with bus stops, hydrants, driveways, and parking lanes that switched to driving lanes at specific times of the day.
In or around February 2012, the DOT initiated an environmental review of the program and its siting guidelines under the City Environmental Quality Review Act. The agency affirmed that it planned to install the bike share station in front of Cambridge since at least April 27, 2012, as shown on a site map bearing that date.
A year later, in April 2013, a docking station was installed. After receiving complaints from Cambridge, the DOT removed an approximately 16-foot section of the station that was directly in front of the building entrance.
No Right to Install Station
The following month, Cambridge commenced the proceeding challenging DOT’s right to erect any bike station in front of the building. The agency moved to dismiss. Its first claim was that the co-op did not have standing to commence the proceeding. The court explained that in order to establish standing, Cambridge had to show that it “suffered an injury in fact, distinct from that of the general public.” Citing another case, this court explained: “[P]ersons directly affected by a determination that would result in the diminished aesthetic, recreational, or financial value of an area, have standing to challenge the determination.”
The court determined that Cambridge had standing because it demonstrated that it was directly affected by the bike share station and that its injury was different from any that may have been suffered by the general public. The court specifically acknowledged that Cambridge – a cooperative corporation – comprised hundreds of residents who lived in the building directly in front of the bike share station, and that the residents claimed to be adversely affected by the location of the station because of, among other things, garbage accumulation, increased traffic, and issues with emergency responders, all of which are different from those experienced by the general public.
The court also recognized that quality of life and aesthetic injuries had been recognized by the courts as a basis for standing.
DOT next argued that Cambridge’s claim must be dismissed because it had the absolute right to promote, facilitate, and regulate travel on New York City streets and highways. However, if the city agency’s action is arbitrary and capricious, contrary to law, or an abuse of discretion, the court may intervene to reverse the decision.
Finally, the transportation department argued that its decision to install the docking station in front of Cambridge was rational, i.e., it was not arbitrary, capricious, contrary to law, or an abuse of discretion. The court noted, specifically, that the courts may not overturn a decision of an administrative agency that has a rational basis, unless there was a demonstration that the action was arbitrary and capricious. Citing an older case, the court explained: “[t]he arbitrary or capricious test chiefly ‘relates to whether a particular action should have been taken or is justified... and whether the administrative action is without foundation in fact.’ Arbitrary action is without sound basis in reason and is generally taken without regard to facts.”
Here, the court found the decision to install the docking station in front of Cambridge’s building fit squarely within DOT guidelines and could not be considered arbitrary or capricious. The agency affirmed that the area in front of Cambridge provided unrestricted public access; ensured maximum visibility; did not impede the use of any existing facilities; was not in a bus stop; was not in a lane that became a driving lane at certain times; and was not within a restricted area. Further, DOT established that it took valid safety concerns into consideration, including the way in which cars turn onto the intersection of West 13th Street and Seventh Avenue.
Cambridge asserted that the bike share station should be removed because DOT failed to notify the local community board and the Landmarks Preservation Commission – the agency responsible for identifying and designating landmarks and buildings in the city’s historic districts – of the location of the station prior to its installation. In making this claim, Cambridge relied on a DOT station map from March 2013 that was only a general map, and which specifically stated “[t]his map is for illustrative purposes only. Station placements are neither exact nor final; locations are subject to change... .” In contrast, the bike share station was specifically identified as being in front of the Cambridge building on a map dated April 27, 2012.
The co-op also asserted that DOT’s decision to install the dock station in front of the building violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, alleging that the station made the building inaccessible to disabled residents. The court first noted that DOT removed that portion of the station that was directly in front of the building entrance. Moreover, Cambridge failed to assert any specific disturbance. It did not allege that access to a curb ramp was disturbed, for example.
The court concluded that DOT had established that it conducted a sufficient review, set guidelines, complied with environmental and other laws, and determined that placement of a bike share station in front of the building did not have a significant adverse impact.
The Citi Bike program, officially launched in May 2013, has been met with enormous controversy. The unofficial, anecdotal opinion of the authors is that people either love the program or hate it – there are very few who have a middle-of-the-road stance. In any event, although this case is not specifically about cooperative and condominium issues (notwithstanding the fact that the petitioner is a co-op), it is important.
A Challenging Standard. It is apparent that Cambridge asserted good, solid, and extensive arguments to challenge the placement of bike share stations in front of its building. At the end of the day, however, it is very difficult for a co-op or condo to meet the requirements imposed, i.e., was the action of DOT in installing a station in front of their building arbitrary and capricious? Where, as here, DOT apparently complied with its own guidelines, Cambridge could simply not overcome its burden.
We note that this is a trial-level case, that there are other cases pending, and that we do not know how appellate courts will treat the issue when it is presented to them.
Think Local. This case also reminds us that co-op and condo boards must be diligent about following local politics and familiarizing themselves with the issues under consideration by their local community boards. We find several situations where an item on a community board’s agenda is belatedly brought to a board’s attention, so that the building has to scramble to present its case.
Often, the board is not advised of an item that – in its opinion – may affect its building, so that no director appears at a community board hearing to contest the issue. Boards and managing agents should keep abreast of local issues, so that they can identify projects of concern and provide timely comment on actions for which a city agency or a private organization has requested permission.
For Defendant: Department of Transportation
For Plaintiff: Ganfer & Shore